Don't mess with The Tournament.
March Madness. The most captivating, enthralling, satisfying 11 days on the annual sports calendar. Something for everyone. Big name teams with classic histories. Unknown teams seeking epic upsets. Cliffhangers. Buzzer beaters. Survive and advance. Lose and go home. Teams of all shapes and sizes, just like their schools, from all points on the map, offering myriad choices for your cheering interests.
And now they want to mess up a good thing.
Perfection isn’t good enough. The NCAA seems inclined to expand The Tournament to 96 teams.
They do that, and they should just cue up the great 60’s hit by Question Mark and the Mysterians, because we’ll all be cryin’ “96 Tears.”
I can see adding three teams. Have four play-in games, one for each region. Have them on Tuesday and Wednesday. Prime-time national exposure for eight teams from the itsy-bitsiest of the itsy-bitsy conferences. Excellent.
That lets in three more teams which, this year, would have eliminated half of the arguments about teams left on the outside looking in. Jerry Palm, who runs collegerpi.com, told Pete Thamel and Richard Sandomir of the New York Times over the weekend, “Honestly, this year is the argument for 48. This year’s field is so horribly underaccomplished compared to the last few years.”
So, of course it seems natural to let in an additional 31 underaccomplished teams.
Now, I can see finding a place for a team like Mississippi State. The Bulldogs won their division in a power conference, came within a tenth of a second of getting an automatic bid by beating mighty (and soon to be No. 1 seed) Kentucky, and then got snubbed by the selection committee.
But do we really want to see Virginia Tech in The Tournament? They came down the stretch 2-5, capped off with an inexplicable loss to 12th-seeded Miami in the ACC tournament.
How about the Hokies non-conference schedule, which included the likes of Brown, Delaware, UNC-Greensboro, VMI, UMBC and NCCU? No Tournament team should play that many sets of initials.
They also played Longwood. That’s right, Longwood. I try to keep up with this stuff, but that’s a new one on me.
Likewise, Illinois. Their Big Ten schedule wasn’t pansy enough. They ventured outside their conference to face the likes of SIU-E, Northern Illinois,
Presbyterian, Western Michigan, and Boise State, which displays considerably less prowess in basketball than football.
But, hey, guess what? When you expand The Tournament to 96 teams, who’s going to show up to fill those extra 31 slots? That’s right. The seventh, eighth, and ninth best teams in the power conferences.
You know, teams like UConn. Coming off a Final Four year, the Huskies began this year ranked 12th in the nation. On January 23, they beat No. 1-ranked Texas, an achievement tarnished by the Longhorn’s subsequent abysmal play. UConn won at Villanova and beat West Virginia-a pair of No. 2 seeds in The Tournament.
Yet these same Huskies packed it in and lost, 73-51, to St. John’s in the opening round of the Big East tournament. Coach Jim Calhoun was asked by George Vecsey of the New York Times why he wasn’t his usual fiery self during the game.
Calhoun cited the eight dunks jammed home by the Johnnies. “I’m not sure how many of those would have been blocked if I would have been jumping and yelling.”
St. John’s forward Rob Thomas was even more candid. “You could see it on their faces that they were giving up,” he told Kevin Armstrong of the Times.
This is clearly the type of team nobody wants to see any more of, let alone see in The Tournament. Yet, as the Big East commissioner John Marinatto told Thamel and Sandomir over the weekend, if The Tournament expanded to 96 teams, every Big East team would have a chance to qualify. That would include DePaul. Yikes.
Nor can you tell the selection committee that at least half of the “new bids” must go to schools from the smaller conferences. Do that, and you ruin the tournaments of the “one bid” conferences.
If you love college basketball, you savor those tournaments where it’s “all or nothing.” There’s no comparison between watching the Big Sky final compared to, say, the Big XII final.
Kansas was going in as a top seed regardless. And Kansas State was already in with its fine credentials. But when Montana left the floor at the half trailing Weber State 40-20, its season was over.
I defy you to find a more riveting 20 minutes of basketball than when the Grizz mounted their furious comeback and copped their bid in a 65-63 thriller. On the flipside, poor Weber State sits at home.
No way the last 20 minutes of that game are played in such a frenzy if both teams had bids in the bag.
You also eliminate the classic David and Goliath first round matchups. No more Bucknell over Kansas. Cleveland State over Indiana. Princeton over UCLA. Coppin State over South Carolina. Vermont over Syracuse. Richmond over Syracuse.
Now the best you could hope for is Wofford over Illinois.